Print Story What became of the monkey?
By TheophileEscargot (Mon Jun 14, 2010 at 02:58:57 PM EST) Reading, Watching, MLP (all tags)
Reading: "Love of Shopping is Not a Gene". Watching. Web.

What I'm Reading
Love of Shopping is Not a Gene by Anne Innis Dagg. Blistering takedown of the would-be-science known variously as Sociobiology, Darwinian Psychology or Evolutionary Psychology, which theorizes that most human behaviour is genetic and evolved in our primate savannah ancestors. Dagg is a zoologist with qualifications in genetics, so she's particularly good on the studies of animals, and the peculiar lack of genetic detail in their theories.

The book really needs to be read itself: it's under 200 pages, and is written at a popular level. Not sure if Dagg is making a tactical mistake by adopting an opinionated tone: she's open about being a feminist, while sociobiologists are good at adopting a wistful tone of "sadly, the evidence irrefutably leads to a conclusion I favour if I ignore all the other evidence contradicting it.

Overall, the pattern seems to be that sociobiologists are highly selective about the studies they use. They accept unreliable studies with tiny samples if it suits them, but simply ignore much larger studies if they disagree with their conclusion. They take assumptions for granted. They adopt just-so stories that can explain any result. They're also strangely reluctant to think about the details of the genes they hypothesize about, almost never asking whether they're dominant or recessive, or on the X or Y chromosome.

Nevertheless, they've been astonishingly successful at getting mass acceptance for their theories. Their studies are faithfully recorded in the press, and their books sell hugely. The studies are often retracted, as with the "gay gene", but as always the retractions get much less attention than the original study.

A few examples.

I had thought that one of the few examples of successful sociobiology was the universal appeal of a waist-hip ration of 0.7 in women, as a marker of good health. Dagg points to a study of the Hadza tribe of Tanzania1 and the Matsigenka population of Peru2 showing men of both prefer a narrower ratio. She also points out that the ratio of Playboy models has steadily shifted over time 3, which is odd if it's genetic.

More importantly, as a biologist she points out the strangeness of the basic idea of the genetically attractive markers of good health in a species such as humans. Humans, chimps, bonobos and our ancestors live or lived in small groups, where mating choices are limited, and you know a great deal about the other members. years of living in close proximity, you probably know whether the potential partner is sick a lot.

Studies of body and facial symmetry are also popular in sociobiology, where they're assumed to correspond to "good genes", but Dagg points out there's no evidence that they actually do. In animals asymmetry is more likely to be due to environmental stress. In humans at least one study 4 found no correlation between symmetry and health.

The problems aren't restricted to humans either. An idea that's been widely promoted is that male lions kill cubs when they enter a pride, to force the lionesses to bear their own cubs. Dagg points out that this is far from proven: lionesses also kill their own cubs too, and males don't tend to stick around long enough to ensure their own cubs survive. 5

There are also a few interesting insights. Aggressive behaviour in male chimps is used in sociobiology books to show that male humans are intrinsically aggressive. Yet female chimps and bonobos are highly promiscuous, one mating fifty6 times in a day with multiple partners: somehow this never gets applied to human females.

Overall, an important book, clearly written and thoroughly supported, well worth reading. The only problem is the price: £14.01 on the Book Depository: pretty hefty for a slim paperback.

What I'm Watching
Saw the Werner Herzog Antarctic documentary Encounters at the End of the World on DVD. Pretty good, though the commentary could be a bit let verbose. Liked the brilliantly creepy part with the disoriented penguin, frantically running and sliding towards certain death at the heart of the continent.

Also, I can appreciate all those Werner Herzog reads YouTube videos more now.

Video. Citizentube rounds up newsworthy YouTube videos.

Pics. Vintage NASA. Underwater ballet.

Articles. Does fiscal austerity reassure the markets? Can the government stop compensation culture?

Random. China: Rent a white guy. Plush pedobear.

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What became of the monkey? | 3 comments (3 topical, 0 hidden)
Compensation culture... by Metatone (4.00 / 1) #1 Tue Jun 15, 2010 at 04:14:54 AM EST
isn't that hard to stop in principle, you just need to reverse the no-win, no-fee legislation.

The problems are practical and political:

1) Without no-win, no-fee you'd need to actually provide decent levels of legal aid again.

2) The whining, crying and lobbying from all the lawyers who've got used to the fat checks from the no-win, no-fee business would be immense. And lawyers are the profession with the largest representation in Parliament...

Ooops... by Metatone (4.00 / 1) #2 Tue Jun 15, 2010 at 04:18:00 AM EST
Chopped comment... not all the cultural trends flow from the creation of the legislation, but enough do that if you changed it, it would have a big impact...

It's good that people will sue hospitals if there's a problem... but bad when it gets frivolous... no-win, no-fee is part of how it got frivolous. 

[ Parent ]
Not sure by TheophileEscargot (2.00 / 0) #3 Tue Jun 15, 2010 at 04:59:57 AM EST
Remember the "don't shovel the snow or you'll be sued" thing from the winter. That seemed to be purely baseless except insofar as it's theoretically possible to launch any stupid lawsuit, but people believed it. I don't think the government can do much about that kind of cultural phenomenon.
It is unlikely that the good of a snail should reside in its shell: so is it likely that the good of a man should?
[ Parent ]
What became of the monkey? | 3 comments (3 topical, 0 hidden)